JOANNE BOUCHER teaches politics and feminist theory at the University of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. She currently researches and has published articles on the impact of new medical imaging technologies on debates about abortion rights.
BETTY FRIEDAN IS UNIVERSALLY REGARDED as one of the founding mothers of feminism's Second Wave. In The Feminine Mystique, published in 1963, Friedan aimed to expose the sexist underpinnings of America's post-World War II complacent prosperity. Friedan argued that millions of American housewives found the destiny of mother and housewife which society mapped out for them stifling, repressive and even dehumanizing.
Anna Quindlen, in her introduction to the most recent paperback edition of The Feminine Mystique, proclaims that this book changed her life and that of millions of other women who became engaged in the women's movement and "jettisoned empty hours of endless housework and found work, and meaning, outside of raising their children and feeding their husbands. Out of Friedan's argument that women had been coaxed into selling out their intellect and their ambitions for the paltry price of a new washing machine…came a great wave of change in which women demanded equality and parity under the law and in the workplace."1
Friedan's self- presentation in The Feminine Mystique is that of a rather naive and apolitical albeit bright and university-educated suburban housewife who stumbles onto a startling discovery -- that America's housewives are, in fact, miserable.2 Friedan depicts herself as sharing in all the experiences of her fellow housewives. She is one of them and has experienced their plight.3 However, Friedan also uses another voice in the text, that of the expert, the university-trained researcher and psychologist. This perspective lends her work scientific authority. The combination of the two voices -- the personal and scientific -- gives The Feminine Mystique much of its dramatic force.
However, for all its acclaim and its status as the book that ignited the women's movement, praise for Friedan's Feminine Mystique has never been unqualified. Indeed many feminists have criticized its myopic representation of women. There is hardly a word in The Feminine Mystique that would indicate that American women in the 1950s were dealing with problems other than the trap of suburban domesticity which, after all, was a consequence of economic prosperity. The problems facing, for example, millions of poor, working women or non- white women -- oppressive working conditions and low pay, racism, and the burdens of a double day -- barely register on the radar screen of The Feminine Mystique. As Rosemarie Tong remarks, "Friedan seemed oblivious to any other perspectives than those of white, middle- class, heterosexual, educated women who found the traditional roles of wife and mother unsatisfying."4
bell hooks draws out further the deleterious political implications of Friedan's narrow picture of American women, particularly given her role as a founding figure of the women's movement. hooks notes that Friedan "did not discuss who would be called in to take care of the children and maintain the home if more women like herself were freed from their house labor and given equal access with white men to the professions. She did not speak of the needs of women without men, without children, without homes. She ignored the existence of all non-white women and poor white women. She did not tell readers whether it was more fulfilling to be a maid, a babysitter, a factory worker, a clerk, or a prostitute than to be a leisure-class housewife."5 hooks does credit Friedan with providing "a useful discussion of the impact of sexist discrimination on a select group of women." But she also offers this damning assessment of The Feminine Mystique, "it can also be seen as a case study of narcissism, insensitivity, sentimentality, and self-indulgence, which reaches its peak when Friedan, in a chapter title "Progressive Dehumanization," makes the comparison between the psychological effects of isolation on white housewives and the impact of confinement on the self-concept of prisoners in Nazi concentration camps."6
hooks' critique is shared by many feminists for whom Friedan's The Feminine Mystique represents the severe limitations of liberal or bourgeois feminism as a theory and as the basis for political action. The faults of liberal feminism center on its seemingly bland acceptance of American capitalism as a system structured on economic freedom which merely needs some tinkering (such as the elimination of "unfair practices" such as racism and sexism) to make it entirely workable and just. Friedan's single-minded focus on white, middle class suburban housewives and the presentation of their dilemmas as emblematic of those of all women demonstrates the underlying presuppositions of The Feminine Mystique about the character of sexism and capitalism. Friedan's liberal or bourgeois theoretical perspective has also been seen to inform the liberal politics which she espoused as the first head of the National Organization for Women (NOW) with its focus on attaining economic and civic equality and its avoidance of the more contentious territory of sexual politics.
Indeed, Friedan is notorious for her initial vociferous opposition to the introduction of lesbianism in particular and sexuality in general as legitimate topics of political discussion in NOW (a position she later renounced). She pushed a brand of respectability which was anathema to many of the radicals in the early days of the women's movement. Friedan was adamant that the women's movement present itself as reasonable, moderate, heterosexual, family-loving not family-destroying, man- loving not man-hating in its approach. Friedan's image as the paradigmatic liberal feminist was only reinforced with the publication of The Second Stage (1981) in which she systematically pointed out the dangers of what she deemed the excesses of the women's movement. Thus, Friedan's persona and the political positions she championed seemed to be entirely of a piece with her liberal feminism.
Moreover, there's an important way in which Friedan and her classic text are pivotal to the narrative of the evolution of the women's movement itself. Friedan and The Feminine Mystique epitomize an earlier, less sophisticated and less inclusive version of feminism. It is the feminism of a white, privileged middle class woman who was unaware of the lives of women outside the confines of safe and prosperous suburbs. In this sense, The Feminine Mystique represents the unworldly past of feminism which has been surpassed by years of political debate and experience. Friedan's work stands for the unsophisticated, naive past of the women's movement. It is a past which has been superseded as women have become more enlightened as a result of decades of struggle, debate and experience.
WITHIN THIS THEORETICAL AND POLITICAL context, the revelations in Daniel Horowitz's book Betty Friedan and the Making of The Feminine Mystique are intensely dramatic and disorienting. For Horowitz meticulously details the voluminous evidence of Betty Friedan's entirely un-bourgeois and un-liberal political commitments prior to the publication of The Feminine Mystique. Much of the new historical data Horowitz offers is significant precisely because it throws into question the tidy narrative of the progressive enlightenment of the women's movement -- from limited and exclusionary to sophisticated and aspiring to be fully inclusionary Horowitz's book disrupts this sort of Darwinian tale of the evolution of feminist politics, with its liberal, radical, socialist, global and post-modern phases representing steps up the evolutionary ladder of politics.
Here are some of the highlights of Friedan's hidden radical and feminist political past that Horowitz has brought to light:7
This information was virtually unknown for almost four decades though one broad and very public hint had been dropped by Friedan herself. In a 1974 essay in New York magazine, "The Way We Were -- 1949" (which was later reprinted in the collection of her essays, It Changed My Life), Friedan argued that 1949 was the year that the feminine mystique "really hit." She offers an analysis of her mind-set in that fateful year. Friedan declares, "After the war, I had been very political, very involved, consciously radical. Not about women, for heaven's sake! If you were radical in 1949, you were concerned about the Negroes, and the working class, and World War III, and the Un-American Activities Committee and McCarthy and loyalty oaths, and Communist splits and schisms, Russia, China and the UN, but you certainly didn't think about being a woman, politically. It was only recently that we had begun to think of ourselves as women at all. But that wasn't political -- it was the opposite of politics."15 As Horowitz notes, neither Friedan nor any journalist or scholar followed the thread of this startling declaration. It was only when Horowitz first published results of his research in a 1996 article in American Quarterly, (his book was published in 1998), that the proverbial cat was let out of the bag. As Horowitz puts it, "In public, with a few exceptions, Friedan has avoided, denied, minimized or obscured her progressive political convictions of the 1940s and 1950s, especially on women's issues."16
Subsequent to this, Friedan did grant extensive co-operation to Judith Hennesee for her 1999 biography, Betty Friedan: Her Life. Hennesee does focus some attention on Friedan's political activism in the 1940s-1950s. Hennesee openly depicts Friedan as a Marxist in her college days and notes her dismissal of her pivotal activist years 1943-1952 as unimportant. However, unlike Horowitz, she concentrates on the more personal aspects of Friedan's life, her family relationships, marriage, affairs, children, personality traits and so on. In this sense, Hennesee's portrayal of Friedan is more consistent with the mode of self-presentation constructed by Friedan in The Feminine Mystique.17 It is only very recently that Friedan herself has provided extensive detail about her radical past with the publication of her recent autobiography, Life So Far.18
WHAT ARE WE TO MAKE of all this new information about Friedan's hidden years of political activism? What are its implications for an assessment of Friedan herself as an author, feminist leader, liberal feminist, socialist feminist? What are the implications for an understanding of The Feminine Mystique as a founding text of Second Wave feminism? More generally, what can we learn about the contribution of women in the Communist Party and its political circles to the women's movement?19
Certainly it is evident that portrayals (and dismissals) of Friedan as a clued-out liberal feminist must be reconsidered. Clearly she was a canny, seasoned political activist when she wrote The Feminine Mystique. Arguably, it may have been her political and professional experience that enabled her to tap so brilliantly into the mood, of and appeal to, middle-class housewives. She left out references to Marx, Engels, and de Beauvoir which, according to Horowitz, were included in early drafts and instead emphasized her persona as a smart college graduate and trapped housewife. In short, the Betty Friedan depicted by Tong and hooks may be said to no longer exist. Further, as mentioned above, Horowitz's research raises serious questions about the usual chronology of the women's movement itself and intriguingly, the connections between liberal and socialist feminism. Finally, Horowitz's work is a forceful reminder, as he puts it, that "social movements and their leaders do not…come out of nowhere. They have histories that powerfully shape their destinies . . . "20
But, apart from all such questions, which will have to be sorted out over the years to come one question must first be approached: Why did Betty Friedan avoid public discussion about her political past? And how does Horowitz address the specific question of her obfuscations about the past? He argues the following: "Friedan had reason to worry that her involvement in radical politics for at least a dozen years beginning in 1940 meant that a full rendering of her life after 1960 was dangerous, given McCarthyism's power in memory and reality . . . Had Friedan revealed all in the mid-1960s, she would have undercut her book's impact, subjected herself to palpable dangers, and jeopardized the women's movement."21 Thus, obscuring her past was merely a sensible, utilitarian choice. Given this motivation for concealment, Horowitz asserts that it was "morally reasonable" since "in the early 1960s, protecting oneself from McCarthyism is an understandable and defensible act."22
Indeed, Horowitz's entire re-telling of Friedan's political past is structured around the notion of the "tragedy of McCarthyism," that the wave of anti-communism which swept the U.S. in the 1950s destroyed an indigenous left tradition, broke connections between generations of radicals and terrified dissidents like Friedan into inactivity and silence. As he states, "I wish to highlight the damage McCarthyism did to progressive social movements in the 1940s and early 1950s, and especially to feminism, which it forced underground but could not destroy."23
But why tell all now? The political climate is clearly more conducive to such news. It would appear that any immediate danger posed by rabid anti-communism has disappeared. And, Horowitz's motives are precisely to reveal the political losses America has suffered due to McCarthyism, that is, the lessons and experiences of an entire generation of radicals obscured. He wishes to restore a sense of the continuity of feminist politics from the 1940s to the 1960s and bemoans the lack of dialogue between what he terms the Old Left and New Left feminism and seeks to encourage such dialogue through the example of Friedan's life.24 Thus, he writes, "I felt that what I was going to reveal about her life made her a more significant, heroic and interesting figure in American history than her own story allowed. After all, I was arguing that Friedan's life, in connecting the 1960s and the Old Left, gave second-wave feminism a richer heritage, one of which both Friedan and American feminists should be proud."25
Friedan, for her part, seems singularly unimpressed by Professor Horowitz's efforts. She refused to co-operate with Horowitz in any way. He was denied interviews and the right to print anything from her unpublished papers. Her hostile attitude is on display in her recent autobiography:
A deconstructing male historian would try to dismiss my credibility in writing The Feminine Mystique by claiming that it was all a communist plot, starting with my Smith student days and my labor immersion, and insisting that I never was a real suburban housewife. But that isn't true. My experience with Communist dogma had given me a healthy distrust of all dogma that belied real experience, while Smith had given me the conceptual ability to take on the feminist mystique, training as a hands-on reporter gave me a third ear to hear pieces of new truth behind denials and defenses and rigidity. That ability to follow leads, clues from many different fields, was invaluable once I truly committed myself to solve this mystery.26
How can we explain Friedan's hostility? After all, the threat of McCarthyism is long gone and she herself has indicated her involvement with left-wing causes. If anything, a radical past could only improve her image in the women's movement. The key seems to me to be in Horowitz's confident declaration that "Friedan's life . . . gave second-wave feminism a richer heritage, one of which both Friedan and American feminists should be proud." In fact, Horowitz presents voluminous evidence, that "At least from 1940 until 1953 [Friedan] inhabited a world where Communists and their sympathizers held influential positions, where she witnessed redbaiting, and where she encountered the ideology of American Communists, especially in their Popular Front appeals."27
Given this, one would expect more caution about assertions of a proud heritage. After all, at this time, Stalin was at the height of his powers in Russia engaging in political crimes of world-historic proportion which the world's Communist Parties blithely ignored or explained away lest it destroy their faith in the existence of a worldly utopia. Moreover, there is no question that the CPUSA adhered to the idealization of Stalin's regime and took direction from Moscow on international and domestic issues. It is at this point that Betty Friedan's anxiety and hostility may become entirely understandable. To say this is a "problematic" political heritage with which Old and New Leftists and feminists have to contend is to understate the case beyond measure.
HOROWITZ'S NARRATIVE of Friedan's political life is, I would argue, one-sided, with its focus on the "tragedy of McCarthyism," and scant attention to the "tragedy of Stalinism," to the point of possible misrepresentation. This is certainly not to dismiss the dismal legacy of McCarthyism with jobs lost, lives destroyed and radicalism gone underground. But, it is crucial to insist on the atrocious legacy of Stalinism and its domestic effects in the U.S. -- blind adherence to party-lines, excusing inexcusable crimes against humanity in the name of a greater good -- which also played a central role in discrediting the aspirations of more than one generation of socialists.
This narrative strategy indicates Horowitz's anxiety about being associated with any form of red-baiting by criticizing overtly the CPUSA and its fellow-travelers. Horowitz thereby positions himself within current debates within American historiography as part of a stream of historians who wish to restore the image of the CPUSA as an organization comprised of "home-grown radicals," motivated by a passion for social justice. This stream of historiography is counterposed to that which views the CPUSA as a mere vehicle for Soviet aims. Horowitz and like-minded historians wish to explore "issues without concentrating on the obedience of some party members to a Soviet-directed party line." He objects to this approach because it presents "a one-dimensional core-periphery model which exaggerate[s] the degree of control of the Kremlin and the Communist Party over people who they thought were passive and naive recipients of a party line. Such a perspective over-emphasizes the importance of actual party membership, as well as the influence of the party and Moscow."28
Horowitz proposes instead to "stress the varied sources of American radicalism, whose origins, power, and sophistication a focus on the party underestimates."29 And he writes, "I can well appreciate how progressives would join with party members in supporting the Soviet-American alliance in World War II, or in fighting for social justice for women or African- Americans."30
This is the prism through which Horowitz analyses Friedans's political life. He specifically describes Friedan as a "Popular Front" feminist or radical. By this he means to include her among those "who battled anti-communism and were inspired by issues articulated by radicals -- party members and non- party members alike."31 He doesn't specifically address whether or not Friedan was, in fact, a CPUSA member.32 But, as noted above, he does position her squarely in CP circles.
However, he also insists that she was not a dogmatic adherent of Stalinism. He contends the following: "I knew that in the immense amount that Friedan published in the 1940s and early 1950s, some of which appeared in party-sponsored publications, she never mentioned the party or displayed a preference for the Soviet social or economic system. I have found no evidence that she sanctioned the killings of millions of people carried out by Stalinists in the USSR, approved of pro-Soviet Americans conveying national security secrets to a foreign nation, or looked favorably on the party's penchant for making dramatic and opportunistic shifts."33
This, of course, proves absolutely nothing. Joseph Stalin himself would not fit this absurd definition of a Stalinist -- he never advertised his mass murders and, of course, spies were operating clandestinely in the United States. Thus, Horowitz produces an exaggerated definition of Stalinism to prove that Betty Friedan was not a dogmatic Stalinist. Moreover, he consistently downplays the extent to which it does indeed appear, the political views espoused by Friedan were entirely consonant with those of official CPUSA party line. He recounts the positions taken by Friedan in articles for FP and UE News as simply as those of an independent radical espousing her own personal views. The significance of the fact that in virtually all cases that Horowitz recounts, her work pushed the concerns and views of the CPUSA is not acknowledged let alone accounted for.
I will note one example that Horowitz raises from Friedan's FP days:
Because Goldstein [her maiden name] also worried that tensions between America and the Soviet Union were early signs of the Cold War, she hoped for a post-war world order built on the continuation of Soviet-American friendship. In March, less than two weeks after Winston Churchill had delivered his speech in which he coined the phrase ‘iron curtain,' Goldstein and Kolkin [a colleague at FP] wrote a story that reported favorably on a protest against Churchill's fostering of hostilities between the United States and the USSR. Two days later, she hailed Wallace's efforts to rally Americans around a decreased commitment to Anglo-American coalition and to develop in its stead a greater understanding of Soviet actions. This, she wrote, would diminish American enthusiasm for a war against the USSR. A few days later, she discussed how interest in oil led the British to support an anti-democratic government in Iran at the same time that she cast a skeptical eye on news of Russian military presence there. In the spring of 1946, she expressed concern that America's support of fascist governments abroad would lead to the deterioration of Soviet-American relations."34
This passage is indicative of the general method Horowitz uses in his approach to Friedan's politics. He presents her as an independent journalist or a Popular Front feminist and ignores the glaring indications that in her journalism she is promoting positions which are entirely in tune with those of the CPUSA (not to mention in the interests of the USSR).
This is certainly not to say that the specific political positions Friedan took were wrong or problematic simply because they were consistent with those of the CP but it is to note that time and again Horowitz obscures or downplays the extent to which she is surrounded by CP members, espousing CP positions and promoting CP-related institutions and organizations in her writing. For instance, Horowitz refers four times to Friedan's dealings with Ruth Young. He refers to an interview with Young as being the most important article Friedan wrote on women at FP during the war. He refers to Young as a "UE official . . . a forceful advocate for women's rights in the union movement."35 Next, it's "Ruth Young, the UE leader whom Friedan had interviewed in 1943 . . . "36 The third reference notes that Friedan "knew Ruth Young, the key feminist in the UE leadership."37 There's little preparation, then, for the final reference to Young which is, as follows: "The transformation of Ruth Young's life under McCarthyism was especially fraught with meaning for Friedan since she had written about Young early in her career as a labor journalist. Young, a Communist since 1937 and the daughter of a Communist, was the first woman member of UE's executive committee and was active in the Congress of American Women [a CP popular front organization]."38 Horowitz then tells a tale of Young and her husband's de-radicalisation and responses to McCarthyism. So, on the one hand, CP connections are not mentioned. When they are mentioned, they only serve to highlight the "tragedy of McCarthyism."
A similar strategy is evident with Horowitz's account of Friedan's relationship to the newspaper, Jewish Life. He writes,
Nothing better illustrates the stakes surrounding McCarthyism than the treatment of articles Friedan wrote for Jewish Life: A Progressive Monthly. This publication noted a scholar, was ‘in the orbit of the Communist Party' until 1956. Although it apologized for Soviet anti-Semitism, in many ways the periodical fought for admirable causes. In its pages, writers explored the relationship between Jewish life and progressive politics. They celebrated the resistance of the Jews in the Warsaw ghetto uprising. They emphasized the connections between discrimination aimed at African Americans and Jews. Moreover, Jewish Life published some of the period's strongest attacks on anti-Semitism.39
The following is from the entry in the Encyclopedia of the American Left that Horowitz uses as his source:
JL, for the first nine and a half years of its existence [1946-1956 -- jb], adhered to current CPUSA positions on Jewish and other issues. From 1948 to the middle 1950s, it followed the Soviet view concerning assimilation when, under Stalin, after 1948 all Jewish social and cultural institutions suddenly shut down. JL's explanation for these events was that they merely reflected a natural process of assimilation of Jews into the general Soviet population and thereby should be seen as being a progressive development and a direct result of the building of a new socialist society in the USSR. When the anti-Semitic campaign in the USSR and Eastern Europe reached its zenith during the years 1948-1953, JL referred to it as a myth fed by Cold War lies. The publication defended the Prague trials of 1952 and wrote an effusive eulogy on the death of Stalin called ‘Stalin and the Jewish People.' These positions served to isolate JL from organized Jewry.40
The central difficulty here is that when one consults the source used by Horowitz for information on the periodical, Jewish Life, what one encounters is a more clear picture that this was a CPUSA publication which followed its international politics to the point of condoning the extreme oppression of Jews in the Soviet Union.
Horowitz recounts that Friedan wrote a series of four articles for Jewish Life attacking the policies of the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), which was the UE's major union rival. The fourth article never appeared because the editors devoted the issue to the execution of the Rosenbergs. His argument is that this must have struck terror into Friedan's heart, given that she was a radical Jewish woman with extensive Party connections (though he doesn't say this explicitly), that she had dated a party member working on the atom bomb, and so on.
However, Horowitz's dramatic juxtaposition of Friedan's association with Jewish Life (fighting for "admirable causes") against the drama of the execution of the Rosenbergs emphasizes the aggression of the American state and entirely downplays aspects of Friedan's political engagements which may be extremely "problematic." In particular, why did Friedan write for a journal which idealized the Soviet Union to the point of condoning its anti-Semitism?
THIS RHETORICAL STRATEGY of emphasizing the "tragedy of McCarthyism" vs. the "tragedy of Stalinism" runs through Horowitz's book. This strategy continues the obfuscation begun (for whatever reasons) by Freidan. It prevents a full accounting of the character of the politics of women activists of the period. And, without this, an open, informed and informative dialogue between Old Left and New Left feminists cannot productively move forward. The difficulty, of course, in assessing the work of women activists such as Friedan is the extent to which their understanding of "male chauvinism," "women's equality," "ending sex discrimination," as ideals were separable from the long-term goal of establishing a society akin to the Soviet Union in the United States. This strikes me as one of the most problematic areas of accounting in which socialist feminists must engage. I would argue that it is far too simplistic to look back at the work of activists/intellectuals/reporters such as Friedan and one-sidedly praise their work any more than it is useful to dismiss it because of its connections to the Stalinist CPUSA.